5 years ago, I decided I was going to shift from a native plantings landscaping theme to one that turned my yard into a sylvan garden. I had read about “Edible Landscaping” and “Permaculture”, and decided that approaching tough economic times could be mitigated by growing more of my own food in a manner that did not require a large degree of manual labor. After all, we are supposed to have several helpings of fruit each day, and nuts have been shown to be very healthy sources of protein and essential fatty acids (and even lowering cholesterol). My family likes to PYO at local orchards or buy at farmer’s markets, and felt that augmenting those purchases with our own fruits and nuts meant that we would rely even less on the local supermarket.
Where to start?
So how does someone go about determining what they can or can’t grow well in this area, or in a specific yard? First, one needs to know what hardiness zone they are in, to eliminate plants that will freeze in their area. We used to be on the edge of hardiness zones 6 and 7, but global warming trends now have us well into zone 7 (as calculated by the Arbor Day Foundation). Thus, we can remove from our potential list all plants that require at least zone 8 (or 9, etc). Conversely, some plants require colder climes than zone 7.
From this point, we need to understand a few specifics about our site;
- Disease-resistance: Many popular fruit varieties (that often show up in local chain store inventories) require extensive spraying to control a wide array of diseases, many of which have been imported from other countries and attack local species that have no inherent immunity. Considerable effort has gone into creating hybrids of species with numerous immunities to produce species that are resistant to a wide variety of disease. Once you decide on the types of fruit you would like to grow, learn about the diseases that are endemic in your area. Then select varieties that are resistant to those diseases. (More on this in future articles)
- Pollination: Some species are self-pollinators and do not require a second specimen or variety to produce fruit. Many species, however, require a second specimen or even another variety to produce fruit. In this case, you must consider the other varieties that are needed, the timing of the spring bloom (which must overlap sufficiently), and an extra specimen so that the loss of one tree does not eliminate the ability to pollinate. Also note how close pollinators should be (e.g., “no further than 25 feet”).
- Fruiting schedule: Be cognizant of the timeframes in which your fruits will ripen; the best approach is to try to cover as much of the calendar year with harvest as possible. For example, I’ve chosen 4 varieties of apples that will provide fruit from July through November, with the later apples able to be stored through the winter (“winter-keepers”). Other choices include strawberries (May) and June berries for early fruit and Lingonberries for late fruit (December). This way, one can enjoy fresh fruits almost year around.
- Pests: Find out from your local horticulture agent which pests are likely to attack the types of fruits or nuts you’ve chosen. Often, disease-resistant varieties also have some resistance to common pests. Many natural pesticide products exist to keep insects from damaging your trees or fruit crop, and there are natural predators that can be encouraged (with their favorite habits) to take up residence in your yard.
- Size: Standard sizes of common fruits such as apples, pears, and others are often too large for homeowners to maintain and harvest. Dwarf and Semi-dwarf varieties are very popular now with home gardeners, and they also bear fruit much sooner. The size (and other attributes such as disease resistance) depends greatly upon the rootstock used. Nut trees can be large without much issue.
- Harvest/Storage: When will each plant bear their crop? How long can it be stored? What are the preferred storage conditions (temperature, humidity)? Can they be dehydrated/canned/etc?
After performing the above analyses, I came up with the following list;
- Asian Pear
- Jujube (Chinese Date)
- Persimmon (American)
- Persimmon (Asian)
- Watermelonball Tree (Chinese Mulberry)
- Black Huckleberry
- English Walnut
- Heartnut (Japanese Walnut)
- Northern Pecan
Does this look like a lot of plants? It is, though one’s yard can be artfully planned out to yield a large amount of fruits and nuts with a thoughtful design approach. For example, one family in Chicago has a planting of 97 apple trees (and other fruits) in a 1/4 acre yard!
Our own yard is approximate 1/3 acre, though we have many acres in sheep pasture. Coincidentally, the sheep also need some relief from the summer sun, so plantings just inside the electric fence (protected by circular fence cages) serve dual purposes.
In coming articles, we’ll talk about laying out plans, the types of fruits and nuts that are doing well here, and how to put it all together to begin executing your plan early this fall.
Come discuss your thoughts at the Sustainable Loudoun forum entry forum for Fruit Trees.